Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Character Playing Pieces

I finally got around to participating on the Story Games forum, which is proving to be fun and interesting, and, as stated, a good midpoint between RPGnet and the Forge. I wound up starting this thread, which turned out to be fairly interesting.
Yesterday a friend of mine was at KublaCon, and he picked up a copy of a Japanese game at the dealers room, which turned out to be a Japanese game company's fanservicey entries into Flying Buffalo's Lost Worlds "fantasy combat books," called "Queen's Blade." Each book represents a character, and you actually trade books with your opponent so they get a "first person" view of your character. This in turn reminded me of Cheapass Games' Button Men, where your playing piece is a button with numbers on it, that represents a character, not to mention Brawl, where each character is represented by a specific deck of cards.
I was wondering if this approach had been tried in an RPG context before, not as a thing done just for a convention game, but as part of the design, and from the replies, it had, basically in a few different types of contexts:
  1. Superhero and other RPGs that involve highly iconic characters. The original Marvel Super Heroes game from TSR is a good example in that it was designed mainly for using the pre-made Marvel characters, and the rules for original characters resulted in PCs that were random and potentially underpowered. (The "fanfic" approach).
  2. LARP games routinely have pregens of some kind, intended to set up certain situations in how they interact, but still fairly open-ended. So (assuming I'm understanding this right) if you get a particular character, it's assigned that he has goal X, but how and why he's after it is left up to the player. (The "plotting" approach).
  3. There are some games from the indie scene that have their whole concept based around a specific group of characters. Jonathan Walton in particular has taken that approach in several games (e.g., Kamikaze Kyoko Kills Kublai Khan is basically a GM-less word game for two people, with two very specific, archetypal characters). (The "iconic" approach).
  4. Certain games have archetypes that define most of the stuff about a character. In Unisystem games this is more of a way providing examples and showing how to use the character creation system, while in Tenra Bansho Zero the archetypes are most of what you do in terms of character creation, on account of the game being designed for extremely fast play. (The "play aid" approach).
Obviously, an RPG has different needs from a game like Lost Worlds or Brawl when it comes to characters. Each Brawl deck/character has a distinctive look and style, but the original set had no character bios whatsoever, while the Queen's Blade Lost World books have about two paragraphs at most. "Character creation" is one of those persistent memes in RPGs, and I think even indie games haven't challenged it all that much (YMMV, change for change's sake is dumb, etc.).

Aside from the aforementioned approaches, I'm wondering what kinds of RPGs could put pregenerated characters to especially good use, especially in the style of the aforementioned table games with pretty illustrations and all that. I do think it'd be neat to put together a "custom build" of Thrash, meant specifically for using a particular fighting game cast. Using PCs as "playing pieces" in a sufficiently Gamist RPG might be a good way to go.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

What's in a name?

John Kim's LJ has been home to a raging debate/discussion about "traditional" and "nontraditional" RPGs, along with some clashing personalities here and there. The Forge has put a lot of energy into defining itself as being a community that explores and transcends traditional roleplaying games. One of the things the comments on this post bring to light is that the notion of what constitutes a traditional RPG is pretty poorly defined.

Of course, if is any indication, there are a lot of terms for which roleplayers have fuzzy and/or divergent ideas about what they mean. I distinctly remember a thread that turned into a raging debate over what constituted a "splatbook." The term comes from how White Wolf had Clanbooks, Tradition Books, Tribe Books, etc. for their various lines, so people got into the habit of calling them "*books online, and then the * got pronounced as "splat." But people couldn't agree on whether or not (for example) the class-specific D&D books constituted splatbooks. I think this is partly because the RPG hobby is small and decentralized, and even the very basic bits of terminology that everyone can pretty much agree on vary, particularly among the big players, for no good reason. If you look carefully, D&D is an "Adventure Game," and Vampire is a "Storytelling Game." (Mark Rein-Hagen was trying to make a point with the "storytelling" stuff, even if WW has since tried very hard to distance itself from its early pretentionsness, just as the indie games that call dice rolling processes "Conflict Resolution" are doing it for a purpose).

Anyway, one point that was raised was that traditional RPGs have a certain kind of power structure between the participants. There's some definite variability -- no two groups play the same way of course, and the GM can ultimately do whatever he wants -- but in general a game like D&D does more to moderate interaction through game mechanics. Character advancement, for example, is a detailed and complex matter, and moreover something a player with the knowhow can do independent of the DM. It's quite a contrast to, say, Fudge's subjective character advancement, not to mention Dogs In The Vineyard. I've been playing with a group that consists mostly of friends I've known for over a decade, so I'm not having to take chances playing with strangers, and thus not feeling any need for the added moderation.

With our current campaign, I'm starting to think that doing the superhero genre properly requires a certain amount of trust, because the characters are defined in large part by their powers, yet it's a part of the genre that circumstances can remove, alter, or otherwise fuck with anyone's powers from time to time.

The inevitable problem with definitions is that when you create a definition from the thing in front of you it works fine, but then when you try to use the definition to decide whether or not something falls within the area of your shiny new term there winds up being a lot of quibbling, especially with regard to stuff on the egdes. A lot of Forge games are based around altering the power structure of the game -- shifting narrative control in mechanically interesting ways and such -- but at a certain point (say with a game like Capes that does away with the GM entirely) you wind up with people questioning whether what you've created is really an RPG. For that matter "nontraditional" and "indie" aren't the same thing (and for that matter, "indie" and "Forge" aren't the same thing either). John Wick's Cat and Enemy Gods have an unusual take on what kinds of characters and situations you roleplay, but the game mechanics aren't anything unfamiliar. Mostly your cat or epic hero is rolling six-sided dice and counting successes, and the GM is the GM like usual.

This is turning out to be longer and more rambling than I intended, but that's okay.

Really, the main thing I like about the indie RPG scene is that it's done a lot to bust wide open what's considered appropriate genres and whatnot for an RPG. Ten years ago, if someone told you there'd be a brilliant RPG about mormon cowboy inquisitors, you'd probably have called them crazy. And now he have DitV, Cat, The Moutain Witch, Dead Inside, Breaking The Ice, and so on. Of course, White Wolf was started with a similar breaking down of walls in mind; you don't have to kill the monsters, you can be one (and not quite in the Flying Buffalo Games' Monsters! Monsters! sense), whether for deep roleplaying or simply a new breed of power fantasy.

I am so not going to comment on the social aspect of this traditional/nontraditional divide, mainly because it involves extensive wankery on both sides.

So, I'll revisit that "I am 3d6" post from a while back. I've been playing New Super Mario Bros. on the DS, and looking at previews of Super Paper Mario, and realizing just how incredibly cool the Psychotronic Mario Brothers thing that dyjoots posted to RPGnet really is. I was in one of the castles in NSMB, and it occured to me that Bowser has the power to force his Koopa Troopers to serve him even after death, and for that matter he's recruited rogue mushrooms, living bullets, and ghosts to his side, in addition to having statues of himself that shoot laser beams (in SMB3) in his main castle. I also noticed something that would only happen in a video game when Mario died from being caught between the scenery and the edge of the auto-scrolling screen. So the list of one-shots and mini-campaigns I want to run now goes:
  1. octaNe
  2. The Mountain Witch
  3. Halo: The Covenant War
  4. octaNe (Psychotronic Mario Brothers)

Monday, May 15, 2006

[In-Character] Truth & Justice, Episode 11

It's been a long day. And a long night. After the water nymph incident was finally done with, everyone broke off to do their own thing. I went to look at motorcycles, and learned that I don't have anywhere near the funds to get something that would actually support my armor. I picked up a book on metahuman genetics to give me something to do in my free time (I need a new hobby), and wound up having dinner with Glenn, Sam, and Jack. Over dinner, Glenn suggested we look into getting some kind of superhero costumes, for anonymity. Considering that Pinnacle and who knows what else are out there, in principle this sounds like a good idea. No tights for me though. I'm thinking a motorcycle riding outfit.

I'd suspected that Raz had slipped off somewhere to indulge his martyr complex, and it turned out he had in fact gone off hitchhiking to the south of Aegis. The guy from the Super-Mentors gave us a lift to go look for him, and we found him on the side of the road. He got his powers back (as I was sure he would, one way or another) and then some, so at least he's got one less thing to complain about. When he was in the car, Raz handed me something he'd picked up, a folder of experimental data. And the watermark on every page was the twin snakes and sword of the Perseus Project.

Now, here's the funny thing. He insisted that the two of us talk about it in private. He's confiding in and trusting me. And reminding me a lot of Ryo, actually. Anyway, from what Raz told me and what was in the file, it looks like the project has facilities in the U.S., including an abandonded one that's too close to Aegis to be a coincidence. The files showed chemical, genetic, and radiological experiments--stuff that the project's stated ethical guidelines expressly forbids--being used on human subjects. The data is incomplete, a sheaf of surviving pages from at least a dozen different lab reports, and the chemicals and processes being used are exceedingly complex, but I've started trying to piece it together. More importantly, Raz said that in the facility -- which was left wide open -- he found another clone, only this one had been left in a tube of some chemical compound, and telepathically begged him for release, for death. He also found out the locations of some of the other clones, most in the Americas, but a couple in Japan. I told him about what they were planning with the Mega-Brace. I keep thinking I left something out.

He told me to call him "Razmus." I don't know what that means exactly, but I suspect it's the beginning of the end of the friction between us.

Does the cellular breakdown that the Mega-Brace would cause to humans have some connection to the way the clones of Raz turn into a dehydrated black goo? I need to go over that data again. Plus Raz brought me some new samples. Having him around really is like having another little brother at times.

I need answers. This whole thing is driving me crazy. And now more than ever I think I'm only going to find those answers by going back to Japan. If I don't get some kind of answer, some kind of sign, I may just decide to drop the superhero act and try to live some kind of normal life. It's not too late to apply to Todai again.

I've been a different person once before. There was that little space between when my father died and when I started middle school, when I was the klutzy crybaby, and apart from the teachers, the only one in my class who wore glasses. Oneechan (who was actually my best friend Chiaki's older sister) was the one who helped me grow up a little. She also exposed us to a fair amount of second-hand smoke, but nobody's perfect. Chiaki, Miho, Karen, Oneechan, and me. I think Chiaki's family is still in Yokohama.

I had that dream again. I really miss my father.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

There's this and there's this. The comments add more context to the story, but ultimately make your brain melt. If I ever let myself get caught in stupid flamey arguments about games and thereby wasting time that could be spent creating or enjoying games, someone please slap me. Games are for having fun. Stupid flamey arguments are not fun.

I'm oversimplifying. My workload is wearing on me. Outside of my close friends almost no one reads this stuff anyway.


Or do you?

Oh yeah. I ordered The Mountain Witch (IPR was having a sale, so I finally caved in), and finished reading it the other day. Along with octaNe and the Halo game I need to finish writing, it's now on the list of games I really want to try out.

Current Mood: Exhausted
Current Music: Pink Floyd - Time

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

[In-Character] Truth & Justice, Episode 10

Today I got to feel useful.

We took a private jet to Aegis, in the middle of the night. I keep mentioning Raz, but no one else feels the need to shove so many things in other people's faces. He has a way of looking at the world that draws out the flaws in others. So, he accused the metahumans of Aegis of xenophobia. I suppose there's a kernel of truth somewhere in there, but it's leaving out so much of the story, seemingly to give him an excuse to look down on an entire city of people he's never even met. If there's anyone who should understand the desire to get away from people prejudiced against those who are different, it's Raz. Instead, accusations, conflating cause and effect.

Aegis is small and flat and new, and populated not only by metahumans, but their families, and an entire secondary population that takes care of much of the day to day matters. Especially for a nonprofit organization, the facilities of the Super-Mentors is impressive. We signed the paperwork that made us a super-team. Officially. Unfortunately, not too long after we had two problems emerge -- and at this point I can only assume they're in some way related. Sam was feeling exceedingly tired, and had to be hospitalized, while Raz... seemed to have lost his powers.

I decided to investigate what I could, comparing the original samples with the black goo and the new samples taken by the medical center. The metahuman element in Raz seemed to have simply vanished, while Sam was... growing a third DNA helix, making him something unique in the world. It's hard to say what exactly this means, except that it created a new incident. As the process was nearing completion, the water in the medical center started to go crazy. He started creating water nymphs, just like Raz said he did at Sunspot's house, but this time there were several hundred of them, and they began to combine into two colossal ones.

I stopped Raz from going in there. He wants me to trust my instincts and make snap decisions, and that's what he got. He said something odd; he asked how I would feel if someone took the Mega-Brace. I made some lame comment about how "we'll cross that bridge when we come to it," but once again he doesn't understand how I think. I'm not proud of it, but if my conscience would let me be rid of it, I would. If the Mega-Brace hadn't entered into my life, I could be attending Tokyo University right now, and instead I'm lying to my family, risking my life, and wearing my father's mask, all for ideals I haven't really been able to fulfill yet. The only life I can definitely say I saved was that of Swan after all. He said something about how his powers are how he knows who he is. Is this a teenager thing? I know who I am, even if I'm not always happy with it, and the Mega-Brace is at best a symbol, not the article itself.

Glenn and Jack rescued the comatose Sam from the medical center, and I used the Mega-Beam for the first time to help defeat the giant water nymphs. It was quite a sight to see more than 50 metahumans working as one, and an amazing feeling to be a part of something so big. The first one we literally evaporated, and the second one Glenn put oxygen tanks into, and I detonated. I wound up using it four times, and it took a lot out of me.

When the dust settled, the medical center was all but demolished, Raz still had no powers, and Sam was feeling exceptionally healthy. Maybe "Stormcrows" would be a better name for our group. When disaster doesn't come to us, we bring it ourselves, one way or another.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

[In-Character] Truth & Justice, Episode 9

I'm still off-balance. My life has never changed so much; it was always a succession of grades and schools, the differences more and more meaningless. In our morning training session, Raz had me dance. That I went along with it is a testament to how determined I am to make this superhero thing happen. I remember dancing with Keisuke, the night before he went off to study in England, and I remember not crying and wondering why.

Today was about Raz, mostly. We were investigating a series of seemingly random beatings, by someone who from the surveillance footage might or might not have been the spitting image of him. There were some kind of telepathic messages involved -- "Suffer" -- from someone who must not understand the nature of the human condition. I think I need to get a better grasp of Raz's philosophy of spontanaity in case he decides to try to be a martyr again. Superheroes are supposed to help people, and that includes other superheroes. We caught up with him at the airport, where he was fighting what looked like some kind of clone or duplicate of himself, and some sort of force field kept us from getting involved. When he beheaded his other self, the body dissolved into black goo. I still need to do an analysis, not that we have the facilities to do the in-depth study I'd like to do. He actually handled it fine himself this time, but there's no telling how many others there are out there.

This wouldn't be so frustrating, except I transformed in public. People were running for their lives, and somehow they found time to point a damn television camera, so "Mega-Rider II" is all over the news. I never really thought about what it would be like to be famous, but seeing myself on the news makes my skin crawl. I need to become a different person, a better person, but I can't change fast enough.

Things are moving even faster now. We're probably going to be flying out to Colorado, to Aegis, a town supposedly populated by metahumans, tomorrow. I don't think of myself as a metahuman, but then I don't think I ever quite figured out what a human is in the first place. Life requires certain assumptions of you, including the assumption that those around you have the same kinds of thoughts, feelings, and rights. That people think otherwise is why we need superheroes, I suppose. Still, I wonder. The population of metahumans has been steadily rising through the 20th century and into the present. It's still a small fraction of the world population, but for how long?

The tenth anniversary of my father's death is looming nearer every day. I've never known the world to care much for round numbers -- January 1, 2000 was by all accounts a dull and ordinary day -- but I can't shake the feeling that this will be an exception, if only because someone wishes to make it so.

Monday, May 01, 2006


I don't often run into it, on account of being a somewhat antisocial college student, but there is still somewhat of a stigma against RPGs. Today's Chugworth Academy reminds me of why no one should care.